There seems to be two dominant memes in the mainstream media about Julian Assange and Wikileaks. One says that he is dangerous and treasonous and a threat to all that is good in the world. The other is that he’s irrelevant, hardly better than a pest, we all knew all that information anyway and what good does it do to release it?
In the past few days, a few smaller stories you might have missed have highlighted for me that – regardless of those arguments – Wikileaks and Assange are absolutely necessary.
I can’t pretend to know thing one about the impact of releasing the private notes of diplomats into the wild. Maybe this will cause World War III. Maybe it will lead to structural reform of international diplomatic relations. Experience suggests a few people will lose their jobs and then it will all go back to business as usual, but who knows? In my view, it is irrelevant.
Without free access to factual information about what’s going on in the world, we have no hope of participating in our own government. The free flow of factual information is a necessary condition for democracy to exist.
This is well understood. Freedom of the press has long been considered a necessary condition for democracy. Without a press that is free to criticise and investigate those in power, the people are at the mercy of whoever controls access to information.
However, in modern Western democracies, free access to information is about much more than freedom of the press. While we can’t afford to be complacent, we are reasonably well-protected from government intervention in media to reporting. What has become pernicious is the extent to which big business interests control our access to factual information.
As the latest Wikileaks story rolled out across the world’s media, it has become painfully apparent that we need someone like Julian Assange and his colleagues.
First case: the UK Press Complaints Commission fails to uphold a complaint against Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn. In a column in September, Littlejohn said “any Afghan climbing off the back of a lorry in Dover goes automatically to the top of the housing list”. The Press Complaints Commission, a voluntary, self-regulatory body that exists to prevent government introducing controls on the press, essentially argued that because Littlejohn lies all the time, that it’s okay for him to do so in this instance. Now, to me and the regular readers of this blog it is obvious that’s a lie. But what about the regular readers of his column/the Daily Mail? If you are fed a regular diet of lies and misinformation on issues of migration, is it apparent this is not true? Or do they believe that there’s sufficient truth that it feeds the hatred they have of immigrants, a hatred deliberately and repeatedly fomented by this man?
Second case: The UK government has quietly gone ahead and made it less necessary to have actual scientists on the scientific committee that exists to advise them on drugs policy. The committee in question hit the news big time last year when half of the scientists quit because the-then Labour administration rejected their recommendations on drug policy. The coalition have acted so they don’t face a similar scandal: if you don’t like the advice scientists give you, get rid of them. Far, far better to have policy informed by the wildly inaccurate, ill-informed ‘journalism’ of papers like the Daily Mail. See case one.
The cost to our society in dealing with the harm caused by drug use and misuse is enormous. Most of that cost comes from abuse and misuse of alcohol, a lethal but completely legal drug. Given access to clear information about this, most people would probably consider that public policy on alcohol needs a re-think. But instead, we get caught up in a moral panic about new drugs emerging from labs that cause a handful of deaths, invest huge resources in making them illegal and do nothing to address the real issue.
If I’d finished this rant yesterday, I may have stopped there. To me, those two examples are sufficient argument for why I will be supporting anyone who acts to keep Wikileaks – and Julian Assange – alive.
Third case: Iin the course of the last 24 hours both Visa and Mastercard have joined Amazon, Paypal, EveryDNS and a number of other private companies in trying to shut Wikileaks down. As wits on Twitter put it: freedom of speech is priceless, for everything else there’s Mastercard: you can donate to the KKK and by exploitative pornography using Visa and Mastercard but they’ve decided you can’t donate funds to support Wikileaks.
It is not yet proven that Wikileaks has actually broken any law anywhere, a fact that is vexing the ‘he’s a dangerous criminal’ camp. It was certainly a crime for whoever leaked the documents to provide them to Wikileaks but analysts are struggling to prove it is a criminal act for Wikileaks to then release that information. And if they have committed a crime, so have most of the major media outlets in the world, who have published the leaked cables.
So: in cases in which criminals have committed crimes and been found guilty of them Amazon, Visa et al do not deny service but in an instance where an organisation has done nothing legally wrong they act because….? What we have is big business interests trying to control the citizenry’s access to factual information.
We need Julian Assange and Wikileaks. I’m inclined to agree with Clay Shirky that Wikileaks might not be a Good Thing forever, but right now, if we are to reclaim a democracy in which the people can participate in their own government, we need them desperately. To shine a light on the dark corners, to shake things up and restore the balance in favour of us, the people.
As an Australian citizen, I’m appalled – but not surprised – that the Australian Government has failed to act to support one of their citizens. We’ve had a far too special a relationship with the US for far too long for any politician to put the interests of Australian citizens before that of the US Government. I hope the open letter in the Australian yesterday – and the thousands of comments in support of it – shames them into action.
If you’re undecided about this issue, I suggest you read Julian Assange’s own rationale. Thank god, the Internet is now mature enough that it seems the efforts of those who would act to deny us access to the information is likely to fail. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us should not be very, very angry about the efforts to stop our access to accurate information.